A Very Bad Fit

Among the many materials ignored by the Stockbridge Board of Selectmen during their kangaroo hearing, there was a report researched and submitted by a nationally recognized expert on neighborhood character, Dr. John Mullin.  He writes:

There is no definition of the neighborhood in the submitted material. Concerning the physical characteristics, it is a long settled and established neighborhood, marked by the gentle curves and slopes of a narrow scenic road, without the need of sidewalks. It is a place of multigenerational families, committed to place and community, who enjoy the seasons and the natural environment. Their homes can be characterized by steady reinvestment with a significant number relying on their own water and sewer systems. I would ask the applicant to compare these traits with their proposal to determine the degree of compatibility between the neighborhood and the project. It would appear that they are not.

Dr. Mullin then includes an excellent chart that compares the values and qualities of the neighborhood to the values and qualities of the proposed resort. This chart clearly demonstrates that dropping a corporate mega-resort into an established residential neighborhood is a very bad fit.

chart

Did the Stockbridge board of Selectmen consider these excellent points? Of course not, since their minds had already been made up, many months before. They smelled money, and figured there was no downside to a project where the revenues would accrue to Stockbridge at the expense of a neighborhood that was located for the most part in Lenox. People in the neighborhood were belittled, bullied and ignored.

So will the various Lenox boards pay closer attention to the expertise and analysis of Dr. Mullin? We hope so, but it seems that many towns don’t care anymore about neighborhoods or families: corporations, and their interests, rule the roost. Unfortunately for our towns, such a large and ill-considered scheme is likely to carry very substantial unintended consequences, and the smell of money may quickly turn into a far less welcome stench.

We urge Lenox board members to exercise maximum due diligence and to pay close attention to every aspect of this project, above all, input from the people who actually live here.

The Telling Detail

Sometimes, the deeper meaning of a long story finds expression in a single document. So it is with recent minutes of the Stockbridge Board of Selectmen, that offer readers a sad chronicle of naive boosterism and derogation of due process. Here is a snippet from those minutes early in the process of “reviewing” (read: shamelessly promoting) the Amstar proposal for Elm Court:

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 1.23.49 PM

Chuck is Selectman Charles Gillette; Chris is Chris Manning, one of the former presidents of the revolving door real estate operation that carries the pseudo-Sanskrit brand name “Travaasa”. The snippet speaks for itself, but here’s the neighborhood response to Mr. Gillette, Mr. Manning and to Travaasa president-du-jour Adam Hawthorn: that “little elderly lady” has a name, and a life, and a residency on Old Stockbridge Road that spans five decades. She deserves to be treated with respect, not dismissed as powerless, and thus considered irrelevant. Rather than caution Mr. Manning for his arrogant statement, Mr. Gillette merely wonders if the fact that “she is in Lenox” may become a problem. So much for the ideals of public service!

The Stockbridge minutes are full of telling vignettes such as this one; we recommend them to all Stockbridge voters. Is this who you are, the sort of town you wish to be? Do such “leaders” truly represent the best and brightest of Stockbridge and the Berkshires?  

A Few Pertinent Facts

stockerselectmen-470x352

UNTROUBLED BY FRESH QUESTIONS AND NEW INFORMATION

On the evening of September 8, in a decision likely to go down in Stockbridge history as the worst ever, and one that may haunt the town mightily in years to come, the three sitting members of the town Board of Selectmen (BOS), acting as the Special Permit Granting Authority (SPGA), gave permission to Front Yard LLC to proceed with their plans to drop a huge commercial resort into the middle of an existing residential neighborhood. For fee payments and tax income that may well turn out to be illusory, the BOS thereby sold out the longstanding residents of Old Stockbridge Road, some of whom have been there for decades, and many of whom actually bought their lots from previous owners of Elm Court.

One young citizen who attended the meeting told us that he was so disturbed by what he had witnessed that he was questioning whether he wanted to continue to live in the Berkshires. Others told us they thought the entire process had been a sham. Though equally shocked by the refusal of the SPGA to carefully weigh and consider relevant factual evidence, all of the evidence, through rational deliberations, we were not at all surprised by what transpired over the course of the hearing. We had facts that strongly suggested that the decision to approve had already been made, way back in 2012. But don’t take our word for it; here are their own minutes.

FACT I

For the BOS meeting of June 13, 2012, we find the following, with red highlighting added for emphasis; the “Chris” mentioned is Chris Manning, the now-departed former President of Travaasa: BOSjune13 Mr. Shatz knew that he would eventually preside over the hearing for a special permit as the Chair of the SPGA, yet there he was back in 2012 actively coaching the applicant as to how they could slide a bylaw amendment designed to facilitate the approval of this one property through an unpredictable Special Town Meeting on zoning issues that was eventually scheduled for February 19, 2013. Even though that meeting was subsequently presented with an  incomplete and inaccurate description of the project, and even with all that preparation and help from the Selectmen, the amendment still did not pass. What to do?

FACT 2

Here we are on March 6, 2013:

march62013

Owner Bob Berle and his attorney, David Hellman, who would subsequently become the attorney for Front Yard LLC, then went away and did what they were told: they crafted a freshly worded amendment, tailor made for Elm Court.

FACT 3

They return on March 27:

march272013 At the regular 2013 Town Meeting to follow, the BOS gave a ringing endorsement to this amendment, written by the owner’s attorney in consultation with the BOS; Amstar once again presented a partial and significantly smaller version of their plan; a few emotional pleas were made to “save Elm Court”; and the amendment finally passed.

Then came the time for those same three members of the BOS – Mr. Gillette, Ms. McMenamy and Mr. Shatz –  to put on their hats as the SPGA, a role in which they are supposed to have open minds throughout an objective and impartial process. Not easy for them to do, having been such eager and supportive Berle/Amstar cheerleaders for the previous two years!

Mr. Gillette, for example, thought that the Town Meeting vote on a bylaw amendment was an indication of unambiguous support for the project, and that his thinking cap could thus be placed on a high shelf somewhere; at least, such was the crux of his statement following the decision on Monday night. As for the Chairman Mr. Shatz, despite strong and relevant new information and analysis entered into the record, he was so convinced of the gratuitous irrelevance of his own SPGA hearing that he had already written up his findings before the evening had even begun!

We leave it up to each reader to reach their own conclusion regarding the ethics of all this, but we can comfortably assert that such behavior is highly irregular for an SPGA, and should raise serious questions, for all concerned residents of Stockbridge.

Do you want the same people who serve as boosters and political consultants for commercial developers to then preside over the permitting process? Is this good for the town and in the public interest, over the long term? Should not the members of the Stockbridge BOS, deeply involved in enabling this project through the bylaw amendment, have recused themselves as the SPGA, and deferred to their Zoning Board of Appeals? Again, we leave each reader to reach their own conclusion.

We close with Article XXIX of the Constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that expresses a noble, fundamental principle for the rule of law reaching all the way back to Magna Carta:

FACT 4

article29 To all those who witnessed this process, and to all those who have duly examined the above three excerpts from the Stockbridge BOS minutes: do you believe this properly high ethical standard has been met?

Size Matters

Many people still do not comprehend the size of the hotel “annex” under consideration. Here is a 96-room Courtyard by Marriott located not far away, in the Hadley/Amherst area:

96 ROOM COURTYARD BY MARRIOTT

96 ROOM COURTYARD BY MARRIOTT

And here is the proposed “annex”:

ELM COURT ANNEX HOTEL AS PROPOSED

ELM COURT ANNEX HOTEL AS PROPOSED:  THIS IS A VERY BIG CHUNKY HOTEL

Amstar is also proposing a 104 space parking lot, as their main “valet service” parking. The photo below shows 80 spaces — so add another row for good measure.

aerialparking

Finally, the proposed “spa” (who knows what it will really be used for) is another 15,500 square feet. Here is what that looks like, in the form of the “Sugar Land” Ballroom, located inside a Texas Marriott, famous as a wedding mill.

SUGAR LAND: COMING SOON TO ELM COURT!

SUGAR LAND BALLROOM @ 15500 SQUARE FEET: COINCIDENCE, OR COMING SOON TO ELM COURT?

Every aspect of the proposed resort is way too big. All historical value on the grounds and in the neighborhood will be crushed by this monstrous new “facility”. Those who claim that this is the only way to “save Elm Court” remind us of how Tacitus described the Roman legions: They make a desert and call it peace.

Alternative Futures

Supporters of the big-box franchise-style hotel “annex” plus the public spa and large restaurant now being proposed for Elm Court continue to play the emotional card: either build this massive resort or Elm Court will collapse into ruin.

To be blunt, this argument is total nonsense. There are many alternative uses; and there is certainly a far better process for building consensus and conceiving a sustainable future use for the property, one that does not create economic viability by destroying the existing neighborhood.

For example:

The Board of Selectmen could establish a committee of neighbors, concerned citizens and planning officials from both Stockbridge and Lenox to research alternatives. Just to get the ball rolling, here are a few ideas.

1. A smaller spa hotel with 32 rooms, 16 of which would be located in a wing similar in architectural style to the present “Billiard” wing, or put additional guest rooms in one of the houses on the southern end of the property (the Gardener’s Cottage, the Butler’s Cottage, the Stables, etc.).

2. Finish restoration of the mansion; involve Trustees of Reservations in running Elm Court as an historic hotel similar to but larger than the lovely restored mansion, The Inn at Castle Hill, on the Crane Estate run by the Trustees of Reservations. All rooms and facilities within the existing footprint. True restoration!

3. A development similar to Bishop Estate, which has 19 houses with most land held in common, as part of restored Beartix Ferrand landscape plan.

4. A development similar to Winden Hill, which has 28 units, in roughly 12 buildings on 60 acres.

5. Try again in this time of economic recovery to sell to an individual who would restore the building for personal use or for use as a luxury boutique Hotel.

6. Attract a small organization (think tank, academic research center, graduate program in 19th century American studies, etc.) to make Elm Court its headquarters, similar to the American Institute for Economic Research in Great Barrington.

7. Restore Elm Court to its original, smaller size and make it the Club House/Event Space for an association of architecturally harmonious houses on estate grounds.

These various approaches are only a start. Surely, a committee charged with exploring these and other concepts could develop a solid list of ideas worth exploring in more detail, with input from planning professionals. Rushing a project of this scale virtually guarantees massive unintended consequences. Let’s slow down, begin again and do it right!

Who Are We?

These past months, those who have questioned the benefits of an over-sized Elm Court have been called various names by the ill-informed boosters for a massive new resort at the heart of our residential neighborhood. So who are these people who oppose expanding Elm Court into a 112-room resort, spa and restaurant?  And why do they oppose it?

We have talked to over 155 petitioners asking for a scaled-back, smaller Elm Court.  Among us you’ll find your friends, neighbors and relatives; teachers, doctors, small engine repairers, students, homemakers, inn-keepers, lawyers, shop-keepers, architects, carpenters, artists, cooks, ministers and elected leaders.

We’re a good cross-section of Stockbridge and Lenox.  Some of us are retired, some still working, some unemployed. We’re young and old and in-between. We own modest, moderate and large homes; rent apartments; and live in subsidized housing.

One abutter, a retired schoolteacher, built her house fifty years ago and fears the constant in and out traffic hundreds of guests, employees and vendors would bring.

Another abutting family worries that they will no longer be able to walk their dog or that their children can no longer ride their bikes on their formerly quiet street.

Among us are many Berkshire youths who fear that the local economy is becoming way too lopsided, in favor of tourism. They have no interest in working at a large franchise-style resort like the one proposed for Elm Court. They ask why town officials aren’t looking for ways to support a more diverse, locally-owned and sustainable economy, rather than giving birth to enormous white elephants.

Among us are three descendants of 18th and 19th century town’s people who do not live near Elm Court yet are worried about the precedent of putting a commercial hotel/restaurant in a residential zone.

Among us are three prominent Berkshire county environmental leaders who want to preserve Elm Court and its landscape as is – not as out-of-town developers want it to become.  We also include two Berkshire-based CEO’s responsible for hundreds of jobs but know that success is not just about income but achieving a higher quality of life.  They worry that an immense resort will be a detriment to the character of their road.

Among us are the many homeowners who make up the Bishop Estate, who are worried about increased traffic, noise, light and the tumult from delivery trucks servicing regular guests and special events.  Concerned signatories also live at Winden Hill, at White Pines, on Stone Hill Road, at Heaton Court.

Signatories now live (or have lived) on nine of the 11 designated Scenic Byways:  Rattlesnake Mountain, Bean Hill, Averic, Mahkeenac, Butler, Hawthorne, Prospect Hill, Yale Hill and, of course, Old Stockbridge Road.  On none of these roads will you find a four-story hotel, nor a sixty seat restaurant, nor a 15,500 square foot “spa”.

Among us are three Stockbridge Planning Board members, three former Selectmen, two members of the Community Preservation Committee, two members of the Stockbridge Cultural Council, one member of the Conservation Commission, three members of the Stockbridge Housing Authority, and one member of the Stockbridge Land Trust Board.

We’re a diverse, lively and independent-minded group who certainly don’t agree on everything, but we all urge the Stockbridge Board of Selectmen to vote on Monday September 8th to deny Front Yard, LLC a Special Permit. That denial will allow discussion of the many alternative solutions (see osrna.org) to this out-of-scale 121,683 square foot hotel/spa/restaurant.